Researching the Ascott Martyrs
I’m Carol Anderson and I am acting as a research adviser to the Ascott Martyrs Educational Trust.
Research into the stories of the Ascott Martyrs largely centres on the Ascott Martyrs Study Group. This is a group of mainly local people who have an ongoing interest in the 1873 event, endeavoring to place it firmly in the context of the life and times of 19th century Oxfordshire people. Although much of the research is through local archive material, the aim of the group is to view the Martyrs’ story within the social, cultural and political history of the times and, to this end, seeks to utilize regional and national archive material.
The Group was formed in 2017 and meets quarterly to report back on ongoing projects as well to initiate new ones.
At present there are eight members of the group namely Carol Anderson, Paula Nielsen, Wendy Pearse, Vicki Robb, Les Timms, Harvey Warner & Pauline Watkins. This not a ‘hard number’ and is open to any interested individuals.
There are many types of history in the Martyrs’ story.
The Martyrs’ story is essentially one of family. Many of the descendants of the women of 1873 still live in and around Ascottt and the tracing of family trees and connections is a key feature of any research. This work is an act of community commemoration. The key piece of published research into the Martyrs’ story is The Ascott Martyrs by Beverley McCombs, a descendant of one of the 1873 women.
Ascott-under-Wychwood is located in an area of Oxfordshire with a long tradition of enthusiasm for local history. Local historical societies and museums in the Wychwoods and Chipping Norton have played their part in the survival of the story and continue to contribute to the ongoing activities of the Trust.
Any investigation of the Martyrs’ story reveals a wealth of evidence for the social life of the times. Not only in the lives of the sixteen women directly involved, but also in that of the middle class farmers, the clergy and aristocratic presence of the Duke of Marlborough himself. It is a story of its times highlighting different lifestyles and attitudes which were to prove so significant in the way the story unwound.
The story of the Ascott Martyrs is a lively and engaging one. It has been the subject of a number of plays and adaptations over the years including a Radio 4 radio play in 1984, Riding to Jerusalem. Like all historical stories it varies in the telling, but the search for the ‘real event’ is one that has fascinated and motivated researchers for many years. The study group draws on a great deal of local knowledge and this, together with a scrupulous attention to the evidence, has resulted in an ever more detailed understanding of the story.
The history of the event, though it lay dormant for many years until the later 20th century, has become an increasingly important part of the community of Ascott. Acts of commemoration, triggered principally by the 1973 centenary celebrations, are now commonplace and fascinating artefacts like the Martyrs’ quilt are symptomatic of continuing and enduring acts of remembrance.
Political and Legal History
From the outset the Ascott Martyrs’ story was an overtly political one. The recently formed National Agricultural Labourers Union and its founding father, Joseph Arch, feature in the Martyrs’ story. Ordinary folk in a remote Oxfordshire village contest time and space in the story, with worthies like the Duke of Marlborough and even Queen Victoria. There has been ongoing interest in the story on the part of contemporary national unions representing agricultural workers, marking, as it does, a key moment in the history of labour relations in England.
The story of the Ascott Martyrs doesn’t begin and end in 1873. The impact of event on the lives of the women and their families has been the source of study for many years. Beverley McCombs, who hails from New Zealand, whose research into the history of the Martyrs raised the question of emigration as a fall out from the conditions of the times. The trial and imprisonment of the women has led to some significant research into the legal processes and prison conditions of the times as well as the nature of law and order in remote rural areas. The range and opportunities for research are seemingly endless.
But the heart of it is a story, a story that is at once human, remarkable and unique and continues to engage and fascinate people 140 years later.
If you feel you would like to become involved in researching the Ascott Martyrs by joining the study group or working independently, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org